By George P. Matysek Jr.
In the wake of the Great Depression, making ends meet was tough for many in Baltimore’s burgeoning immigrant communities. With large families to feed and limited job opportunities, parents supplemented their income by sending their children to work on far-off farms in Delaware, Pennsylvania and elsewhere in Maryland.
From 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. – nearly every day of the summer – Catholic children with Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Lithuanian and other ethnic names plucked string beans – their young backs bent to secure a harvest that would bring their families two cents per pound.
“The trucks would come at 5:30 in the morning to get you to the field by 6,” remembered Mary Jane Zarachowicz, a 77-year-old parishioner of St. Margaret in Bel Air, who spent her childhood summers working the fields with her siblings.
“It was very hard,” said Zarachowicz, the 13th of 14 children. “The sun was beating down on your back and you had to have long sleeves.”
The biggest challenge came early in the morning, she said, when dew covered the fields.
“I hated it,” Zarachowicz remembered with a laugh. “You’re walking in the fields and your clothes got soaked. You don’t have a hair dryer. You picked until the sun would naturally dry you out.”
By mid-afternoon, when she and her siblings were wearing out, Zarachowicz remembers finding inspiration in her faith. They would start singing Polish hymns such as the much-loved Marian hymn, “Serdeczna Matko” – “Stainless the Maiden.” Then would come humorous folk songs or even the occasional “kolendy” or Christmas carol.
“It kept us up,” Zarachowicz said, “and that’s how we got through it.”
Mothers usually accompanied their children to the farms while fathers stayed home working manufacturing or other labor-intensive jobs. During bean-picking season, the families lived in small shacks and slept on straw-filled mattresses. The families were not recognized by name, Zarachowicz said, but by a number. “Row bosses” who could speak native ethnic languages and who were also fluent in English oversaw the workers and signaled the end of the day by blowing a whistle. Burlap sacks full of vegetables would then be carted off to local canneries.
While string beans were the mainstay for many families, other vegetables such as asparagus and tomatoes were also cut or picked.
The Felician Sisters who ran Holy Rosary School in Fells Point, where Zarachowicz and many of the other children attended, made accommodations for bean pickers who had to miss the start of school to complete the harvest.
Despite the challenges, Zarachowicz said, children didn’t look on their work as demeaning or overwhelming. They took pride in knowing that they were helping their families. They had fun, too.
“Most of the ethnic groups had people who could play the accordion and violin,” said Zarachowicz, noting that the bean pickers never worked on Sundays. “So, they would play and we would dance polkas, waltzes and obereks.”
Since 1980, those who worked the fields as youths have gathered every year for the annual Bean Pickers’ Dance at the Polish Home Club in Fells Point. Fewer in numbers, but still proud of their history, the farm veterans were on hand at the most recent celebration Aug. 12 – enjoying lively polkas, sour string-bean soup and a vast array of bean-picking memorabilia.
In a twist of demography, Hispanic immigrants populate many of the Fells Point row homes once occupied by European immigrants near Polish Home. Like their predecessors, the newcomers are providing much of the hard labor on farms and other sites throughout the state.
“It was a way of life,” Zarachowicz said. “We made an honest living and that’s the way it was.” l
George P. Matysek Jr. is the assistant managing editor of the Catholic Review.
Copyright (c) Sept. 6, 2012 CatholicReview.org